8 Tips for Teaching Conversation Classes

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Due to the current requirements of the Japanese educational system, most high school students are tested only in reading, writing and listening to English. One consequence of this is that a vast swathe of the population have a some understanding of English grammar and vocabulary, but are unable to speak the language.

Another consequence is that there is a small minority who either through a deep interest, a natural aptitude or having been blessed with a good teacher are able to speak English but have a limited outlet for this skill (you have no doubt met them, they are the ones who approach you, maybe after a couple of drinks and ask you where you are from, or they strike up a conversation in an izakaya bathroom about the qualities of Bruce Willis’ oeuvre simply because you happen to bear a passing resemblance to the Die Hard star, to pick two examples completely at random).

A third consequence is that, as English becomes increasingly important in the Japanese workplace, there is an extensive market for English conversation schooling. This is where you come in, as there are many opportunities for native (and native-level) English speakers to teach conversation classes. If you want to get involved, some of these tips might help you.

Be prepared to back up your grammar.

You could be forgiven for thinking that, in a conversation class, you can chuck that dusty old grammar manual in the bin. But you’d be wrong. Remember, your students, no matter how much difficulty they have expressing it, may have a fair grasp of grammar from their school days, and they will be using this as a linchpin on which to hang their spoken English. If they have any problems understanding they will return to this knowledge and ask you ‘why?’ If you don’t know, don’t bluff your way out. Be honest and look it up. That dusty book is your friend.

Topical horses for conversational causes.

The aim of conversation classes is to get your students conversing, obviously. The best way to do this is to introduce topics that will get them nattering. Of course, with students you do not yet know well this is difficult, but you can start with safe guestimations of their likes by their demographic. Introducing a topic of pension fund collapses is unlikely to enthuse a group of high schoolers and nor will conversation about the recent romantic entanglements of ARASHI excite a class of middle-aged salary men (though you never know…) so at first you should play it safe. Once you know your students better you should be tailoring your classes to their specific likes. The more they are into it, the more they will be talking and thus learning.

Be prepared for your lessons to fall flat.

So you have a new group of uni students. You know nothing about them, so you play it safe and plan a pop music lesson. You open the class with “so what music are you guys into?” expecting a heated debate. Instead you are met with. “Nothing much”, “I like whatever” and “I hate music.” (Seriously. True story.) So what do you do? It is now that you dive into your bag of tricks. Pre-prepared role play personas, and random question cards; dice and playing cards; even those drinking games you played when backpacking around South East Asia, sans booze of course. These are all great ways of getting your students chatting, particularly when there is competition involved, and it gives you the chance to get to know them better meaning your lesson is less likely to crash and burn next time.

Conflict is your friend, but not controversy.

Nothing is more likely to get your students chatting than conflict. When they are passionate about a subject they may go on forever. Play devil’s advocate, oppose everything they believe, wind them up and let them go. However, be careful not to go too far with courting controversy, particularly around emotive subjects. Again, this is where knowing your students well comes in handy, knowing which buttons to push, how to provoke them and, most importantly, what to avoid and when to pull back.

Drive the conversation, don’t be it.

Many people think that they make great conversation teachers because they are such chatterboxes, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. If you’re babbling on, it means that your students are quiet, and it is they who need improvement, not you. A good ratio of student/teacher talk time is 70/30. You should be starting the conversation and give it a helping hand or change of direction as and when needed. Think of your class as a playground merry-go-round. Give it a push and let it spin; if it slows push it again, but as much as possible, let it go under its own volition.

Get everyone involved.

Sometimes you will be lucky and you have a class of total windbags who like nothing better than to blabber on. However, even in a particularly lively class there may be one or two who do not naturally involve themselves. In these situations it can be easy to let them float off, and concentrate only on the more talkative ones, as these are the ones pushing the conversation. But don’t forget, everyone should be getting as much out of the lessons as they can. Sometimes you might need to dismantle a conversation in order to bring someone else into the group.

Exaggerate your ignorance for conversational gain.

So maybe you have been in Japan for 25 years. Perhaps you hold a doctorate in Japanese culture. Maybe you know more about Japanese history than your students ever will. But by masking this you can open up whole new avenues of conversation. Many Japanese presume that gaijin know little or nothing about Japan, so use this. Remember, your students will more readily talk about topics they know something about, so by feigning ignorance in matters that to them are everyday, they may be more relaxed in opening up to you. However, don’t go too far. Asking “so, what’s this sushi stuff I keep hearing about” is probably going to get you rumbled.

An open end is a means to an end.

Perhaps your best friend in a conversation class is the open ended question. This is probably the most important tip of these golden tips. In class, as in life, nothing stilts a conversation like one word answers. If in doubt, ask ‘why?’ “How are you?” “I’m hungry” “Why?” “ I didn’t eat lunch.” “Why?” “I was busy”. “Why?” “Because my boss gave me extra work.” “Why?” “He hates me because I ran away with his wife!” Why, why, why until you are blue in the face. Sometimes their answers might surprise you.

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Pop culture writer and full-time tebasaki abuser.

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  • Joe Bardon says:

    A very nicely written article. I had been teaching in Europe before I came to Japan and found that it was a totally different skill. The only thing I would add – that is only implied here – is that teachers should be prepared to sometimes stop the conversation and do a bit of good old fashioned teaching. In conversation based classes, I tend to make notes as students talk (as well as giving some important on the spot correction or vocab) and then, half way through or at the end of the class, I focus on language teaching. First, choose the language points that are generalizable, then get students to practice them using substitution drilling as well as getting them to give their own examples. With vocabulary I make a sentence with some gaps on the board so they can do a gap fill together at the end, or do a game like backs to the board. I also try focus on some pronunciation points too. Most importantly though, I get them to write it down in an organized way in their note books and (ideally) start the next class with some questions they have made using the language we have looked at.

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